Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Your Main Character's Personality: Reveal It Piece By Piece

This is the second post in a series entitled Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do

Pieces of your character's personality can be written into each scene

So you have a character you absolutely love, and you can't wait to tell everyone about it!

  • You've built up the character in your head or on paper
  • You've envisioned her childhood
  • You've got his features firmly fixed in your mind
  • You've been working out her entire employment history

Now what do you do? How do you reveal all this backstory without killing the plotline or boring your readers half to death?

Reveal it piece by piece.

Let's use an example character: Veronica Tsosie. She has had a terrible childhood, was orphaned early and was shifted from relative to relative, ending up with foster families where she was never truly wanted.

These childhood experiences will affect her personality in a fundamental way. Perhaps you'll write Veronica as a person who is needy and is constantly seeking approval. Perhaps you'll write her as the opposite extreme, as a person who finds it almost impossible to trust anyone.

If you reveal her childhood history at the beginning of your work, though, all that exposition will kill the tension and pacing of your story, and any mystery your character might hold for your readers.

"This is all not to say that your character can't reveal her past. But that's her job, not yours!"

Instead, let your MC's actions reveal her history. Veronica's distaste for authority figures and unwillingness to let her guard down in front of other people will speak for itself. How about a scene where she is trapped in a room with another character, yet cannot allow herself to fall asleep in the company of that person? She forces herself to stay awake until she passes out from fatigue. This would show the reader without a doubt that she is carrying around major pain.

This is all not to say that Veronica can't reveal her pain to another character. But that's her job, not yours! She is going to have to build trust with another character or be pushed to the point where she reveals her childhood tribulations.

Characters need background, they can't be thrown into your story without a past. However, don't turn around and choke your readers with a huge chunk of exposition. Instead, reveal your MC's past piece by piece, and allow your characters to do their own talking. Blend the past with the present when it's the most meaningful for your storyline.

Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do is a series of posts that will explore how much you need to know about your story versus how much you need to tell. It's that old show versus tell conundrum explored in a new way.

Danielle Ste. Just is the author of several short stories including The Forgottens and The Effect-Displacement Assassin. Her new novel, Lethe, is forthcoming.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Detail Maps: Move Your Characters Around Confidently

This is the first post in a series entitled Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do

The less famousbut still fabulousdetail map of the Shire from The Lord of the Rings.

As science fiction and fantasy writers and readers, we are all familiar with maps. Star and galaxy maps à la Star Trek, and world maps à la Tolkien.

I love world and galaxy maps, and use them a lot for my fiction. However, there is another tool that we can employ as writers, and these do not necessarily have to go into our finished work.

I'm talking about the detail map.

This could be a quick sketch of a street or a neighborhood, or even a map of a particular city where your characters spend a lot of time.

Benefits of creating a detail map:

  • All In One Place: You don't have to keep scrolling upward to check where you had placed that building in a previous scene.
  • Concretized Ideas: Things take on a permanence when they're down on paper.
  • Creativity Boost: You'll start to create things you'd not thought of before when you map out your neighborhood. Things like, "...wait, where do these people walk, shop, stable their animals/park their spaceships."
  • Verisimilitude: Movement will flow once you've got a neighborhood chartedinstead of a boring move from point A to point B, perhaps you can follow your character through that neighborhood. Incorporate a spice market or community water fountain, or the off-planet customs office.

    Once you've created the map, you don't have to use every detail! Only utilize those details relevant to your storyline. Remember, you need this information more than your readers.

    Take the Tolkien Shire map for example. Many neighborhoods and physical features in the map pictured above are not explored in the work. Some are referenced in passing, though, which helps the reader to place people and events. For example, Fatty Bolger's family came from the Budgefords of Bridgefields, yet he himself had never been over the Brandywine Bridge. This character reveal makes more sense to readers when they see on the map that the Brandywine Bridge is quite close to Bridgefields and yet Fatty had never bestirred himself to cross it. Yet, Bridgefields is named only once in the entire three volume novel (although it is also mentioned in the appendices).

    One of my favorite places-as-characters is Martha Wells's city Charisat in the novel City of Bones. I have to believe that she created a map of that city!

    In one of my own works, two characters must break into a house and explore it. Of course, they are attacked and must fight their way out. Not only did I draw a detail map of the house and its immediate environs, but also the doors, windows and some of the furnishings. I then referred to the map while writing the scene. All that detail made the breaking in, exploration and eventual fight much more realistic.

    Enriching your story with detail maps will help you to bring your story to life!

    Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do is a series of posts that will explore how much you need to know about your story versus how much you need to tell. It's that old show versus tell conundrum explored in a new way.

    Danielle Ste. Just is the author of several short stories including The Forgottens and The Effect-Displacement Assassin. Her new novel, Lethe, is forthcoming.